Bouncing Forward Through Technology: Restaurant Design Trends Shaping Customer Experience

Looking beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and into the future.

The evolving customer behavior heightened by the coronavirus pandemic has painted a picture of the greater permeation of the technological trends in restaurants that have emerged of late.

It is clearer now more than ever that technology is an indispensable component of any foodservice structure that will define the future restaurant design. Experts in the NRA's Restaurant Industry 2030 report forecast that the foodservice landscape is about to further embrace these technological innovations.

Technology in the foodservice industry

The restaurant of the future is fast-paced, efficient, and multifaceted, and much of this is made possible by the comprehensive application of online and customer-facing technology. Websites and mobile apps have enabled foodservice operators to stay open by providing the value of home delivery while QR codes, self-ordering kiosks, and touchless payment solutions reduced unnecessary face to face interaction.

The industry has been slow in making the switch to more advanced technological solutions, but COVID-19 has undoubtedly put pressure on foodservice operators to make the jump sooner in order to remain in business safely in the midst of lockdowns, large-scale employee unavailability, and reduced operating capacity.

Touchless and cashless payment systems

The biggest technological trends in restaurants brought about by the pandemic are the cashless payment systems. They are deemed safer than paying dirty cash, which is believed to contribute to the spread of the disease. The level of convenience it provided, however, is something that customers might not want to do without moving forward. 

EMV, for example, lets them pay by simply tapping their cards against a point-of-sale or POS terminal. Another option is a mobile wallet such as Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay that connect their mobile devices to a payment terminal through Near Field Communication or NFC to securely conduct an encrypted and cashless transaction.

Self-ordering kiosks 

Self-ordering kiosks are speeding up the ordering process without taking away the ability of the customer to customize. [link] Self-ordering kiosks can be interlinked to your POS system as well as a kitchen display system or KDS to create a network of stations that can communicate with each other for quick and instant distribution of order information. This makes the process more seamless, but also provides you data on the speed of your service, where bottlenecks can occur, and how long it takes for each station to perform their task.

Self-ordering kiosks can also be programmed to facilitate automated upselling to increase the ticket with upgrades, sides, and combos. Kiosks have a user-friendly interface that can be customized to promote your most profitable items and leverage branding. They are also smarter than printed menus in that they can collect data that will be useful in your pricing strategy. [link] Self-ordering kiosks will be able to free up more staff who can focus on preparing orders and delivering a top-notch customer service experience.

Self-ordering kiosks 

Touchscreen tablets 

Having enough wait staff in the field to tend and turn over tables keeps your restaurant running smoothly. However, they won’t be able to do that if they have to constantly leave their posts to scurry to different areas of your restaurant to enter orders, serve orders, and return wrong orders. Tablet ordering systems are some of the most portable and convenient technological trends in restaurants of late that present a much better way to do these tasks. 

Arm your servers with a tablet from which they can immediately enter and send orders from the table to the kitchen in a single tap of a button. Maitre’D freed up 10 minutes per hour of time by switching to tablets, which put their servers in a much better position to increase the number of tables they can handle and ensuring high quality of service for each one. 

The technology also reduced the number of order-related errors because it gave more time for the prep staff to peruse the orders as opposed to receiving orders from multiple tables all at once, which is how most restaurants did it traditionally. The restaurant also saw an increase in the average ticket order, which they attribute to having more staff in the dining room that can upsell or cross-sell or that guests can ask products about.

Kitchen Display Systems

Technological trends in restaurants are telling us that more screens are headed to the kitchen to replace the kitchen printers and the slower, more traditional way of receiving orders.

Kitchen display systems are transforming the back of the house by digitizing the process of receiving orders, increasing efficiency and accuracy while minimizing human error and reducing food waste. Connected to POS systems, kitchen display systems or KDS connect the front house to the back of the house by allowing servers to immediately send the order to the prep staff after taking it. When the server enters the order, it pops up on the screen in the kitchen and routes it to the correct kitchen station if multiple systems are set up.

Kitchen display systems take much of the guesswork that comes with food prep so chefs and cooks can focus on assembling great-tasting meals customers will love. This solution has a meal coursing feature that helps your staff find the perfect timing to cook the food, ensuring each item in a single order goes out at the same time hot and fresh. One item can take a shorter time to cook than another, and with the KDS, the staff can estimate when to prepare each one to prevent anything from getting cold.

Kitchen display systems also allow them to consult recipes or preparation procedures. When the orders are complete, the waitstaff can be alerted, so food reaches the customer in its freshest.  Kitchen display systems can color-code orders based on where they are coming from. You can even set up yours so that online orders automatically register so that they won’t have to be manually entered. Kitchen stations won’t have to deal with a pile of papers.

Kitchen Display Systems

Robotics and automation 

We only see robots in the kitchen in movies or video games, but the emerging restaurant trends are suggesting that this is shaping up to be a very real future for the industry. As operators search for ways to further streamline food service processes, we are seeing the once-futuristic technology trickle into both the front and back of the house. Although at the moment, robots are relegated to simple, low-skill tasks to support employees and make the operation smoother, faster, and more accurate. 

Robots can automate parts of the prep and cooking processes such as measuring ingredients or servings with a hundred percent accuracy and be able to sustain a high level of consistency and speed longer than a human can. This way, each order is the same as the other every single time. Robots can also be programmed to create customer profiles that will allow restaurants to personalize the customer experience and loyalty programs. [link] White Castle has also deployed Flippy the Robot, an automated kitchen assistant that can be tasked to flip burgers.

Despite the growing presence of robots in the industry, people still have mixed feelings about the adoption of these technological trends in restaurants. A study from researchers at Ball State University and the University of Nevada Las Vegas revealed that customers are of the opinion that robots are best suited in the fast-food landscape where they can increase efficiency and accuracy at the front of the house and play a valuable role in food control and consistency at the back of the house. 

However, they do not seem to be completely on board the idea of robots in fine dining where they feel that “human touch” and “human effort” just can’t be replaced. Indeed, the market has not been kind to fully automated restaurants, as many have closed down into the first few years in business for what many believe is the continued value of human interaction. Going the fully automated route is best for serving on-the-go customers that are looking to satiate their hunger in the quickest way possible. 

Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence or AI lets operators provide a personalized customer experience. In the restaurant setting, its basic use is as chatbots that take orders, answer basic queries, or generate smart and tailored recommendations based on preferences pulled from the customer’s online activity and order history.

On a larger scale, AI is solving major drive-thru-related frustrations such as staff retention, which is a major pain point in the fast-food industry. Employees can get overwhelmed attending to orders coming from multiple lanes, each one requiring its own set of tasks such as payment processing, packaging, and scanning loyalty cards. Many leave the job because the salary is not just worth the stress, leading to high turnover rates. This forces most restaurants to operate with a smaller staff that may have limited training, leading to slow, subpar service. In fact, drive-thru service time from 2013 to 2018 increased from 190 seconds to 234 seconds, which simply made customers frustrated.

Many operators are reporting the positive impact of AI in their day to day operations, particularly in the speed of their service. A Colorado-based restaurant tested the Valyant AI in 2018 to take orders from their drive-thru, which resulted in as much as a 50 percent reduction in wait time as it enabled the cooks to get started on the order even before the conversation between the customer and the virtual assistant wraps up. Fast food powerhouse McDonald’s is testing a voice-based technology to understand speech as a way to reduce service times. This solution is being explored for use in self-ordering kiosks as well. [link]

Artificial intelligence

Pay-at-the-table service

Another one of the major technological trends in restaurants we will be seeing more of in the future is the ability of customers to digitally or electronically pay right at the table. Pay-at-the-table solutions reduce the number of steps required to complete a payment transaction, removing any unnecessary contact while making the entire process so much more efficient. 

One main customer pain point is the agonizingly long waiting time to get the check. The traditional way takes approximately nine minutes and involves much of the staff running back and forth from the table to the POS system. With pay-at-the-table technology such as touchscreen tablets or handheld POS, guests don’t have to wait longer to settle the bill. Servers also get extra time to interact and engage with them, giving them more opportunities to wrap up the dining session on a more friendly and positive note. Some services even help customers calculate tips and gratuities or evaluate experience through a short survey. Digital receipts from pay-at-the-table systems also provide more opportunities to recruit customers into your mobile or email list to stay connected with them through promotions and announcements.

Online reservation system

When it comes to table reservations, doing it online is the way of the future. An online reservation system affords you valuable flexibility and longer availability without increased manpower. This is because customers have the ability to book a table any time they want. They won’t have to wait for your business hours to speak to someone on the phone. 

An online reservation system also helps you stay within the capacity of your restaurant, preventing you from overbooking. Your staff won’t spend too much time on the phone to take bookings, so they can be more available to tend to diners. This technology also gives you the ability to track cancellations, putting you in a much better position to manage walk-ins or waitlists. 

Like the technological trends in restaurants we talk about here, this solution can also provide you with important statistics and data like reservation histories and preferences give you valuable insight into how your restaurant operates and segments it can be improved. Depending on the technology you choose, you can integrate your online reservation system in other tools you use in your restaurant such as your mobile or email marketing.

An online reservation system also helps you reach customers that you otherwise won’t be able with the traditional format. It is an especially attractive feature to younger people who do not want to socialize. According to Gloria Food, more and more young people have come to dislike having to speak to someone to reserve a table because they are not comfortable talking to a stranger or anyone for that matter. This “social awkwardness” can drive them to abandon the idea altogether, making online reservation a godsend to this particular segment of customers. 

While there are tons of benefits to moving your reservation system online, the old way is not going anywhere just yet. Many people still like being able to do this offline with a phone call. In a research conducted by Cornell University, it was revealed that while many users loved the convenience of online reservation, they still value the personal connection that comes with making a reservation via phone. So it pays to have this option for these people, but make sure that you try to convince them to try it out. Market the convenience of doing it online, which adds the benefit of adding them to your email or mobile list with the information they provide.

Online reservation system

Virtual reality

Virtual reality is one of the biggest technological trends in restaurants that has a lot to offer in multiple facets of your operation. At the moment, virtual reality is limited to helping customers check seating space or book a seat. Some use it more creatively by making virtual presentations of their dishes or hosting a virtual tour of the establishment. 

A handful of operators, however, have based their concept entirely around VR in a bid to provide a much more unique and memorable food experience to customers. This is exactly what Aerobanquets did with the VR simulation of “the dinner party of the future” where silverware is obsolete. Throughout the dining session, customers are treated to captivating images like orbs and bright lights that mimic the sensation of eating the food.

KFC, on the other hand, developed a VR interactive training platform that helps employees and franchisees navigate the process of making the perfect chicken. The fast-food franchise ended up releasing it for customers to enjoy as well, incorporating mini-games in an escape room-type gameplay where players prepare the chicken, like how kitchen staff would in real life, albeit under the watch of a cartoon version of Colonel Sanders. [link]

Wifi connection

Wifi completes the range of technological trends in restaurants we will be seeing more of in the future, which comes as no surprise judging by how integral it has become to our everyday lives. Many people want to stay connected with the online world. Having wifi at your restaurant will be an attractive feature to have for this reason, but it is important that when you do offer it, make sure that customers will actually be able to connect without fuss. From there, they can instantly share reviews and pictures of your restaurant or food, or even contact family and friends for some impromptu dining session. This also keeps customers occupied while they wait for their food. 

Some might feel that wifi connection in a restaurant will get in the way of actual interaction and bonding as people might bury their heads on their phones. Some restaurants deliberately forgo wifi to encourage people to converse. 

Wifi connection

The bottomline 

When talking of technology, there is no sidestepping the elephant in the room, which is its threat to human employment. This is especially true in the industry. Participants in the abovementioned study, which included former restaurant workers, expressed apprehension and frustration about the idea that automation can spell the doom of human employment in the foodservice industry. Proponents argue that the goal of technology is not about replacing people but helping them work smarter. Especially now that we have seen how an unexpected threat such as COVID-19 can put employees out of commission in an instant, machines can temporarily fill the gap. [link]

Automation and robotics make it possible for machines to take orders and make recommendations, perform automated upselling, or measure ingredients. This results in the greater mobility of your staff. Managers can handle more tasks because they are liberated from some back of the house responsibilities. The tech also saves servers multiple trips from the table to the cashier while getting additional time to engage with guests.

But robots and automated solutions are specifically programmed to do one thing. They are limited to the information fed to them and the configuration they receive. Robots are not capable of performing high-skilled jobs and making complex judgment calls. While there is an ongoing attempt to develop technology that operates at this level, its use in restaurants is simply not financially justifiable.

Humans have a more dynamic skill set and there is the ability to handle the complexities and nuance of the job. Robots can't think on their feet or adjust to sudden changes. Unless robots have been programmed to do it, humans will continue to be the best people for jobs like detecting whether an ingredient is a bar or burned. [link] [link] Solving customer frustrations will still require a human touch and so will designing a menu or creating new recipes. 

So when you sit down to think about building or growing your foodservice operation, keep these technological restaurant trends in mind and set yourself up for success.

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